The Journal Gazette
Sunday, June 30, 2019 1:00 am

Turning over a new leave

Legislative help essential in helping employees reach an appropriate work-life balance

Anne Marie Labenberg

When I welcomed my third child in 2007, I was the owner of a new home health agency, with limited staff and limited budget.

Giving birth at 9:14 a.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 31 via cesarean section, I was answering scheduling calls by 12:30 p.m. and providing guidance to my staff as they came to visit me in the hospital. Discharged from the hospital on Sunday, it was clear that I had to return to work the next day.

As a small employer, I did not have the resources to pay both myself and a temporary employee to cover the essential functions I provided.

Two weeks later, I fell asleep at a red light. I woke up to concerned people pounding on my window; they thought I was having a medical emergency. My body was not ready to be back to work, and I needed to be home to bond with my daughter, but I had no choice. I couldn't be home, keep the company going and still have income.

The Family and Medical Leave Act, signed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, applies to all public agencies, companies with 50 or more employees, and all public and private elementary and secondary schools. These employers must provide qualified employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year for childbirth/adoption, serious health conditions or to care for an immediate family member. This does not cover leave for solo entrepreneurs, small businesses, nor employees who have been at their workplace less than a year, even if their employer is eligible.

As our population ages, maternal and infant mortality rates continue to rival those of developing countries and the opioid crisis rages on, the need for guaranteed paid leave is clear. Most people agree that family should come first. No matter the ZIP code or employer, everyone should be able to bring home a new baby, care for their aging parents or heal from a serious illness without facing impending financial disaster, unemployment or both.

The United States is the only industrialized country that does not provide paid leave. The absence of federal-level policy for paid family leave forces workers to piece together any employer-provided leave such as sick days, holidays, vacation time, disability insurance and/or paid or unpaid leave to deal with personal or family health problems. Many low-income workers have no vacation, sick or other leave available.

Instead of rest, we're forced to choose between our health and job security, with women of color and women of lower socioeconomic status disproportionately affected by this lack of guaranteed paid leave.

In the 2017 Kaiser Women's Health Survey, four in 10 working mothers said they must take time off work and stay at home when their children are sick, with 56% doing so unpaid. In comparison, only one in 10 men has the same responsibility.

In late 2018, Fort Wayne adopted a three-week paid parental leave policy for employees; it applies to both mothers and fathers and must be taken within the first 12 weeks following a birth or adoption.

While this is certainly better than no paid leave, it barely scratches the surface on why employees need guaranteed paid leave. This needs to be expanded to include the various roles women (and men) play as caregivers, patients and employees.

Mothers without guaranteed paid leave are faced with choices: go to work after the birth of a child before their body is ready, face unemployment and/or financial ruin, or accept public assistance. Women are also more likely than their male counterparts to be the caregiver for aging parents and immediate family illnesses. Lack of guaranteed paid leave also negatively affects those with mental illness and prevents them from maintaining employment while receiving appropriate treatment and intervention.

This is unacceptable.

What can you do? Contact your senators and representatives to tell them  you support guaranteed paid leave for all Hoosiers. Tell them your stories: when paid leave would have allowed you to appropriately care for your family, recover from illness or childbirth, or get treatment you needed to come back to work well.

We can and must do better.

Anne Marie Labenberg, a registered nurse, is the founder and president of RAISE Consulting.

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